Quilts Under the Microscope Gallery


Protection & Preservation

Inherent Vice

Improper Care

Improper Care

Click images below to view larger and read more information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.

While all quilts are susceptible to deterioration during normal use, wool quilts have an additional adversary: the clothes moth. The clothes moth is a small insect that is about one fourth of an inch long, and its scientific name is Tineola bisselliella. Actually it is the moth larvae that damage woolen quilts by feeding on the protein in woolen fibers. The moths are especially attracted to soiled fabrics and prefer dark, quiet areas.

All new acquisitions to the International Quilt Study Center are inspected for any signs of moth activity and vacuumed before being stored with the collection. While vacuuming may eliminate some insects and destroy a portion of the eggs, it is not enough to eliminate them entirely. If live larvae are found, current recommended treatments for moth infestations include freezing the textile. After wrapping it in muslin or acid-free tissue paper (to absorb any moisture condensation), the textile is rapidly frozen and left for at least one week to ensure that all moths, larvae, and eggs are killed. Moth balls (volatile pesticides) are not recommended because they have proven harmful to humans.

Early American Textiles

The production of woolen fabrics during Colonial and early American days was a time-consuming task involving several steps, which took place in the homes of textile workers specializing in the various processes. Some citizens of the new republic were skilled spinners and weavers, but most had to rely on others to process the wool from their sheep. For example, they might take their wool to one person to be carded, combed, and spun into yarn. Next, the yarn would be taken to another specialist to be woven into cloth. Still a third specialist might be hired to dye the cloth. In New England this was the typical state of textile production at the end of the 18th century. The other option was to purchase fabric (largely imported) from mercantile shops. Wearing domestically produced fabric, however, was a source of pride and patriotism for new Americans. While more money was spent on foreign-made textiles during the 18th century, within one hundred years, New England would become a major center of textile manufacture. More than 3,000 textile mills eventually developed throughout the eastern United States, producing both wool and cotton products.

Special Display Considerations (Woven Coverlet)

Woven wool coverlets, such as the one you see here, were popular during Colonial and early American times (1600-1800). This one is reversible and is in relatively good condition. However, it would not be advisable to hang a textile of this type because of the strain that would be placed on it. While a slant board could be used, space is always a consideration when planning an exhibit. Therefore, a gently curved mount has been created that allows the item to rest gently over a padded base, thus conserving space while providing maximum support.

This type of display also allows viewers to see both sides of the coverlet as well as the areas where moth damage has occurred.

Improper Cleaning

This chintz appliqué quilt was spot cleaned at some point in its history using a chlorine bleach solution to remove the yellowing and staining of the cream-colored cotton background fabric. The spot cleaning was too aggressive; consequently, there is significant bleach damage and deterioration in several areas of the quilt. While the bleach was intended to whiten the background fabric, it also bleached and discolored the chintz fabric. In order to correct this, a previous owner recolored these areas with a red marker to try and hide the bleach damage!

This damaged quilt illustrates why bleaching and wet cleaning (a gentle hand washing without agitation or wringing) should be the last resort when historic textiles are stained and soiled. Wet cleaning treatments are irreversible and it is unpredictable how textiles will react to them. Wet cleaning and spot cleaning treatments with bleach should be done only by a trained and experienced conservator.

Special Display Considerations

This quilt measures almost 11 feet square! Because of both its size and the large amounts of damage from the bleach treatment, this quilt was too fragile to hang. Instead, it was folded in such a way to show the fine quilting and beautiful chintz fabric, as well as the damage, and displayed flat. This method of display causes little to no strain on the quilt. Size and condition, as well as the exhibit length, must all be taken into consideration when determining whether or not to display an antique textile.

Fold Damage

Note the location of the fold damage on these glazed chintz pillow cases. Years of being stored folded into quarters have damaged these pieces irrevocably. Proper storage techniques could have prevented this unfortunate condition. Folding fabric repeatedly along the same lines stresses and strains the fibers and eventually weakens them, resulting in deterioration of the yarns and permanent creases and fractures of the fabric along the fold lines. Museums combat fold damage by storing items flat and unfolded, if possible. If an item must be folded for storage, museum personnel pad the folds with crumpled tissue paper. The private owner can minimize the risk of fold damage by folding items off the normal fold axis, i.e., off center or in thirds, and refolding them periodically along different lines. If items must be stacked when stored then heavier items should be placed at the bottom of the stack.

Printing and Dyeing Techniques

Throughout history, people have used pigments and dyes to add color to the textiles in their lives. Weaving, dyeing, painting, and printing are the most common techniques for creating colorful designs on fabrics. The advent of roller printing at the end of the 18th century revolutionized the production of colorful textiles. At first only a single color could be printed, and large motifs were used. As technology progressed more colors were added, as in these chintz pillow cases. As the 19th century passed, large prints became smaller and more varied, giving us multicolored calicoes, like the one in the blue dress on the mannequin.

Special Display Considerations (Calico Dress)

Historic garments need special consideration when being prepared for display. Support and silhouette both must be taken into account when creating a mount. This blue calico ensemble from the late 19th century, which is in good condition, has been mounted on a special adjustable dress form made of archival materials. This form is smaller in circumference than standard dress forms because it is designed to be padded up for the display of historic garments, which often have distinctive silhouettes and sometimes very small waists.

Archivally safe polyester needle-punched felt was used to pad the mannequin to help achieve an historically accurate silhouette. A simple muslin petticoat was constructed to lend shape and fullness to the skirt.

Textile Fading

Fading is caused by a combination of light exposure, high temperatures, humidity and poor air quality. The most damage occurs when textiles are exposed to light for a long period of time. This is noticeable in the green stripes and horizontal fade line of this quilt. This fade line could have been caused by the quilt being folded and stored for a long time next to a window. This bonnet also shows evidence of light damage, with one half appearing darker in color than the other.

Keeping textiles away from direct light exposure and setting lights on low can help avoid this type of damage.

Special Display Considerations (Amish Bonnet)

The mount for this bonnet consisted of a foam head form that fills out and supports the shape of the bonnet. The foam is archival quality - made of polyethylene, which is one of the most chemically inert polymers available.

A simple stand of a dowel rod and wooden base ensured that the lower edge of the bonnet did not rest on the display surface and thereby prevented distortion of the bonnet by keeping the weight of it off its lower edges during display.

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